Albert Einstein: Pipesmoking Genius

A portrait of Albert Einstein by Artur Lopes

When one thinks of Albert Einstein, what image manifests? His pipe, naturally. That's easy for pipesmokers, but most people unfamiliar with the benefits of the briar think of E = mc2 first, then about Einstein's hair, and maybe his violin. But Einstein's pipe is a near constant in photos of the physicist and has become fundamentally associated with his memory.

He once fell out of a boat into the water, and when he was pulled back in, he still held his pipe. After his doctor insisted that he give up smoking in later life, Einstein still chewed on his pipes and kept one with him always. In fact, when he quit buying tobacco, he was known to load his pipe with and smoke tobacco salvaged from cigarette butts that he scrounged on the street and sidewalks.

Familiar to all and understood by few, E = mc2, the equation that represents Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity, is perhaps the most famous equation ever formulated. Energy equals mass times the speed of light (in a vacuum) squared. What it means, basically, is that space and time are not individual phenomena; they are interconnected elements of a four-dimensional space/time continuum. "Mass and energy," said Einstein, "are merely different manifestations of the same thing."

The Original 1920 English Publication of The Theory of Relativity

The original 1920 English publication of "The Theory of Relativity."

Einstein understood early on, while he was working as a patent clerk in Switzerland, that Newtonian mechanics and the laws of the electromagnetic field could not reconcile, leading him to his theory of relativity. It was based on two premises: that the laws of physics are identical in all inertial systems (those frames of reference that are not accelerating); and that the speed of light in a vacuum remains constant for all observers, regardless of vantage point, direction, or speed of observer. That last assertion is a difficult concept, counterintuitive to everyone's observations of moving objects. For the speed of light to remain a constant for all observers, time itself must pass at different rates for different observers. Hence the famous abstraction of clocks ticking faster or slower according to their physical speed.

You may have run across two relativity theories pertaining to Einstein: the Special Theory of Relativity (1905) and the General Theory of Relativity (1916). In Special Relativity, Einstein approaches only flat (without gravity) time/space and the idea that mass and energy are equal, as reflected in the famous equation. General Relativity adds the force of gravity to the concept, with a non-spatial, continuous bending of space/time in proximity to accelerative and gravitational forces, which are also equal. The curvature of space/time is what we perceive as gravity.

That theory may be what he's most famous for, but he did important work before that, too, in his spare time as a patent office clerk. He wrote a paper explaining the zig-zag behavior of tiny particles suspended in liquid or gas, known as Brownian movement. Pipe smoke was an example.

The paper that won his Nobel Prize in 1921, 17 years after publication, postulated the existence of photons, which, he wrote, explained the photo-electric effect of materials that emit electrons when struck by light. It was not his Theory of Relativity that won the Nobel.

Einstein did not enter the public consciousness until he challenged the scientific community to test his theories by observing the bending of starlight around a massive object, like the sun, which would be measurable during a total solar eclipse. When one occurred in 1919, he was proven correct, and his theories became world famous.

He was eccentric, and human. He loved women, for example, making no effort to conceal his many extramarital affairs. According to Walter Isaacson's 2008 biography of Einstein, he had 10 affairs over the course of two marriages, and discussed some of those affairs in letters to his wife and daughter. One of his affairs was with a woman named Margarita Konenkova, suspected of being a Russian spy.

While the scientist loved women, he didn't seem to treat his wives well. He composed a list of rules for his first wife, Meleva Maric, a scientist herself. This marital manifesto required that Meleva keep the home neat, provide three meals a day, that she not expect intimacy, not reproach him in any way, that she refrain from speech when told, and that she leave the room without comment when requested. Strangely, Meleva left him, filing for divorce five years later.

Einstein and his second wife Elsa

He wore baggy, ill-fitting clothes, and bought identical gray suits so he wouldn't waste thought on choosing what to wear every day. Steve Jobs would later wear the same style black turtleneck shirt, sneakers and jeans everyday, to reduce "decision fatigue." It's a method utilized by many ingenious people who don't want to waste their ingeniousness on clothing.

Einstein had logical reasons for his eccentricities, because that's how his mind worked. He didn't wear socks, for example, because his big toes continuously wore holes through the material. Most of us would just buy new socks more often, but not Einstein. He thought it through and decided socks were not practical for him personally. Photos of Einstein in sandals reveal that his big toes extended beyond his other toes more prominently than for most people, so it was not an imaginary issue. His toes were sock killers, and his solution more fundamental than average.

Pipe smoking contributes to a somewhat calm and objective judgment of human affairs. - Albert Einstein

Sailing was among his favorite pastimes. He enjoyed the solitude and the opportunity to think without extraneous static. However, he never learned to swim and was a terrible sailor, often requiring rescue when he capsized his sailboat, the Tinef (a Yiddish word meaning "worthless"). Although world-celebrated as a genius of the first order, he never figured out how to sail, even after 50 years of sailing experience, and would drift aimlessly, unable to keep the mast in place, continuously running aground or tipping over, and regularly requiring help from passing boaters.

It's said that while Einstein was teaching, he disliked acting as an advisor for students, and devised a one-question intelligence test that passed only two percent of those taking it. However, there is conjecture that the story is merely a myth. For those interested, and for those who might like to try it, that question is at the end of this article.

Many have heard the story of Einstein failing math when a child, but it is untrue. Though he didn't speak until three years old, his math skills as a child were excellent. (When exceptionally intelligent children experience significant delays in acquiring speech, it is now called "Einstein Syndrome"). He failed an entrance exam to a school once, but it was because he didn't speak French very well.

Albert Einstein in 1933

Einstein was a classic absent-minded professor, often forgetting luggage and generally unable to remember where his house keys were, and was famous for not remembering names, dates or telephone numbers. He also had a mild form of echolalia as a child, a disorder whose primary symptom is the repetition of phrases just heard. A conversation with Einstein consisted partly of his repeating the last line just said to him.

An intellect such as Einstein's doesn't necessarily include practical employment acumen. None of his professors would provide references or recommendations, deeming him unemployable. It took him nine years to find a job after graduating from Zurich Polytechnic. Some basic skills were beyond him. For example, he was never able to drive an automobile.

Few artifacts survive, as Einstein did not save material objects. One of his pipes is in the Smithsonian Museum, though it is usually on loan to other museums because of its popularity. It survived only because Einstein amusedly gave it to a lady who requested it, and she later donated it. It's the single most requested exhibit in the modern physics collection. Nonsmokers, too, understand the significance of a pipe to a pipesmoker, and what a very personal item it can be. Everyone is fascinated by a pipe that Einstein smoked; it offers the closest object possible to a connection with Einstein himself.

He was a lifelong member of the Montreal Pipe Smokers Club. It's known that he smoked Revelation tobacco, and that he enjoyed it because it presented many different flavors simultaneously. There are even photos of him with a tin on his desk, but less is known about the pipes he smoked. A Davidoff pipe belonging to Einstein, from the late 1940s, did survive in the possession of his family, and was sold at auction recently for £52,000.

Most have heard his most famous quote about the pastime he loved: "Pipe smoking contributes to a somewhat calm and objective judgment of human affairs." He seems to have lived that adage, being interested in humanitarian objectives throughout his life.

Attendees of the second Solvay Conference (1913)

He was horrified that some pointed to his work as the precursor to the atom bomb. He was prohibited by the FBI from even speaking with any scientist on the Manhattan project because of his interest in equal rights and humanitarianism. He theorized about the enormous energy within matter, but had nothing to do with concept or design, though he did sign a letter to President Roosevelt recommending the development of the bomb, because he feared Germany was about to unleash its own. However, he later wrote again to Roosevelt saying it was madness to consider detonating such a weapon over the Japanese people. Roosevelt died with that letter unopened on his desk.

Einstein appeals to us because he was a gentle genius, brilliant beyond most imaginings, who through the power of his own thoughts alone changed the way humanity understands the universe. For those of us who know the satisfaction of pipesmoking, he means even more, because his enjoyment of, dedication to, and vast experience with pipesmoking makes him a member of our clan, one who made good, who found pipesmoking an effective tool of contemplation, and changed the world doing it.

Einstein's Puzzle:

The Einstein Puzzle (aka the "Zebra Puzzle"), supposedly invented by Einstein to discourage students from wanting him as their adviser, is said to have a 98 percent failure rate. Can you solve it?

There are five houses next to each other on a road. Each house is a different color and has a different male owner. Each owner has different tastes—including type of pet, favorite drink, and brand of cigarettes. Each man also has a different nationality.

The Swede has dogs. The German smokes Prince cigarettes. The green house is just to the left of the white house. The man who likes Blue Masters cigarettes also drinks beer. The Dane drinks tea. The owner of the yellow house smokes Dunhill cigarettes. The Norwegian owns the first house. The owner of the green house also drinks coffee. The Brit lives in the red house. The owner of the center house drinks milk. The smoker of Blend cigarettes has a neighbor with cats. The man who smokes Pall Mall cigarettes also keeps birds. The Norwegian lives next to the blue house. The smoker of Blend cigarettes has a neighbor who drinks water. The man who lives next to the Dunhill smoker also keeps horses. Who owns the fish?

One method of solving the puzzle is here.

Category:   Pipe Line
Tagged in:   Famous Pipe Smokers Pipe Culture


    • Tyrel Sorensen on August 11, 2019
    • "Who owns the fish?" is the question that should appear at the bottom of the riddle.

    • Gus Kund on August 11, 2019

    • Chuck Stanion on August 11, 2019
    • Tyrel:

      Ha! I can't believe I forgot to put the riddle part of the riddle in the riddle. Worse than telling a joke without a punchline. It's fixed now. Many thanks!

    • CloudWarmer on August 11, 2019
    • As always, Mr. Stanion, you're in excellent form. I really enjoyed that article. Best of all, I now have an excellent response to critics of my sailing performance, or lack there of.

      L-RD Bless, Keep, Shine. . .

    • Raventrack on August 11, 2019
    • Great article. Thank you for the effort that went into this.

    • Ed Turner on August 11, 2019
    • Spellbinding article. Best and most concise explanation of Einsteinian physics I have come across. I do not understand the solution of the riddle but if you start with the house colour positions as given, place green and white using the milk/coffee clue it unravels fairly easily. I suspect Einstein would have wanted the flash workings not just the answer - if I had a tin of tobacco for every time I met that criticism at school/university/work I would have some cellar!

    • thormusique on August 12, 2019
    • Great article, thanks! As a lifelong lover of all things Einstein and (of course) a pipe smoker myself, it's particularly edifying to read about this aspect of the great man. When I was at grad school at Princeton, each day I'd make it a point to walk past what had been Einstein's house. Also, whenever possible, I'd go down to sit beside Carnegie Lake and contemplate—pipe in hand—the fact that the great man would often sail there, while no doubt imagining what it would be like to ride a beam of light.

    • Howard H. on August 14, 2019
    • Many thanks, Chuck. Another keeper.

    • John S Sincak on August 18, 2019
    • I'm trying to do research on who his tobacconist was. Did you find anything along these lines in your research for this article? Thank you in advance!

    • John S Sincak on August 18, 2019
    • I am trying to find out who his tobacconist was. Did you come across anything during the course of your research for this article? Thank you in advance!

    • Robert Silverman on August 19, 2019
    • This is not about Einstein and pipe smoking but about another aspect of his routine.

      My wife's grandfather, working in Princeton at an auto supply store on Witherspoon St., would often find Einstein coming in and entering the back room. to share herring and other such items which were packed in her grandfather's lunch. I have often wondered what these such dissimilar men spoke about, or if they even spoke, while enjoying what were foods loved by compatriots from another world.

    • Chuck Stanion on August 20, 2019
    • John S Sincak: I wish I could help, but that information did not reveal itself when I was reading up on Einstein. It would be interesting information to have and I'd have included it if I could. I hope you'll let us know if you find an answer.

    • Ben Gosling on January 20, 2020
    • He once ran out of tobacco during a lecture and the students broke cigarettes for his pipe. Can you really imagine this man scrounging cigarette butts from strangers on the street? What a lot of old grunt!

    • John Wills on May 6, 2021
    • I have some of albert Einsteins pipe collection. How would I get this appraised? Please contact me. My grandfather worked at the institute of technology in Princeton throughout the 50s. Would love to share these with the world .

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